All the Super Bowl hopefuls have an Achilles’ heel that could derail their dreams. But they also have something going for them that gives them hope for a Super Bowl trophy.
Carolina didn’t make it to the playoffs perfect, and maybe that’s a good thing as they rest and recalibrate for the playoffs.
Arizona fended off Seattle, which stormed back from a stumbling start.
The Vikings overtook the Packers in the North, but Green Bay reached the playoffs once again, and the Redskins capitalized on a bad division and a good quarterback decision to return to the postseason party.
Each of the half-dozen NFC teams still standing have reason to believe they’ll put their fingerprints on the Lombardi Trophy next month. But each also has a major flaw that could derail those dreams.
The NFC gets going Sunday when the Seahawks (10-6) visit the Vikings (11-5). Then the Redskins (9-7) host the Packers (10-6). The Panthers (15-1) and Cardinals (13-3) each earned a bye.
Here’s a look at the biggest strength and weakness of each of the six NFC playoff teams:
Why they’ll hoist the Lombardi: Cam Newton. The Panthers scored more points than any team in the league this season behind the versatile Newton, a leading MVP candidate. He became the first NFL quarterback to throw for 35 touchdowns and run for 10 scores.
Why they won’t: Health. The Panthers have struggled in recent weeks with their pass rush and lost starting cornerback Charles Tillman for the season in Week 17 to a torn ACL. Tillman is the second cornerback to suffer a season-ending injury in the last week.
Why they’ll hoist the Lombardi: The NFL’s best offense. Carson Palmer set franchise records for yards (4,671) and touchdowns (35). Larry Fitzgerald and John Brown surpassed 1,000 receiving yards, and Fitzgerald’s 109 catches broke the franchise mark he set a decade ago. Rookie David Johnson has a team-high 13 touchdowns and is a big-play threat as both a runner and receiver.
Why they won’t: Protecting their passer and pressuring the other quarterback. If Arizona can’t run, the offensive line could be overwhelmed by the pass rush. Pressuring the opposing quarterback, especially without a blitz, has been a problem. The midseason addition of Dwight Freeney helps, but he’s not an every-down disruptive force.
Why they’ll hoist the Lombardi: Defense. With 14 sacks, seven takeaways and two touchdowns over a three-game winning streak to close the regular season and win the NFC North, this group is in a groove. It’ll be even better if nose tackle Linval Joseph, who missed four of the last five games with a toe injury, returns to the lineup.
Why they won’t: Iffy offense. Teddy Bridgewater is 17-11 as a starter, but he passed for 250 yards just four times this season. If they fall behind quickly, their run-first formula featuring Adrian Peterson implodes and protecting Bridgewater behind a so-so offensive line gets harder. Exhibit A: their 38-7 home loss to Seattle a month ago.
Why they’ll hoist the Lombardi: Believe it or not, Kirk Cousins. The fourth-year quarterback is playing the best football of his career at the most opportune time – entering the playoffs and free agency. He led the NFL in completion percentage at 69.8, ranked fifth in passer rating at 101.6, set a franchise mark with 4,166 passing yards, and threw for 23 touchdowns and only three interceptions over the last 10 games.
Why they won’t: This team has many flaws, including a suspect running game and a shaky defense. And if Washington beats Green Bay in the wild-card round, it will be the first victory all season for the Redskins against a team that finished above .500.
Why they’ll hoist the Lombardi: No one wants to face Aaron Rodgers in the playoffs. When healthy, the offensive line is capable of opening holes for bullish running back Eddie Lacy. The defense and special teams have been strengths for most of the year.
Why they won’t: The offense has been searching for consistency all season, especially since it was exposed by the Denver Broncos on Nov. 1, sending Green Bay tumbling with a 4-6 finish after a 6-0 start. The chances of finding a fix for their big-play woes after 17 weeks are slim, and injuries have ravaged their offensive line.
Why they’ll hoist the Lombardi: Russell Wilson is hot. The two-time defending NFC champs know what it takes to win in the playoffs, although they must hit the road without Marshawn Lynch, who’s not ready after his abdominal surgery. They’ve won six of their last seven games, including all three on the road. Wilson has 24 touchdown passes and one interception in that span.
Why they won’t: St. Louis showed the blueprint for stopping the Seahawks with its Week 16 win in Seattle. The Rams hounded him, dominated the line of scrimmage and disrupted the entire Seahawks offense. Seattle faces a difficult road at Minnesota in frigid conditions and, if it wins, at Carolina, with early West Coast starts in both.
The Associated Press